A pregnant friend asked me the other day how on earth you're supposed to raise a baby, and what came to mind at first was a general approach to anything difficult, to getting one's writing done every day, for instance. You take really short assignments, one passage at a time, write shitty first drafts, remember the fertile richness of messes, failures and mistakes; breathe, ask for help, tell the truth.
I couldn't actually think of anything specific to share with her on pregnancy and parenting that didn't also apply to writing -- after all, both are elective courses in Earth School, and not things that everyone needs to do in order to feel fulfilled. But if you insist on doing either, you start where you are, and you let yourself do it poorly, you study the work of people you admire, and after some time, you'll get better, and be insane for shorter periods of time.
Then I realized I must know a little bit about raising kids, because there is a mostly sweet 14-year-old boy downstairs listening to the Grateful Dead. I do know how to endure and even transform life's raw materials -- joy, loneliness, cluelessness, exhaustion, wonder, self-loathing, narcissism, rage and shit -- into gold. So today's short assignment, Lesson 1, will be a letter to my pregnant friend, on new beginnings, infants and orange baby poop.
It's going to be all right, more or less. The most important thing to remember is that we are all in the same boat, together; and also that all babies produce baby shit that is so vile and bizarre as to defy physics and description. Sometimes it is orange, sometimes red, or green, sometimes all in one day: It's like a cross between goat turds and stinky little Skittles. Sometimes it resembles the kind of jelly with which you remove rust from hardware. Sometimes it looks and smells like the poop of a dying cat. It can smell so noxious that you will think about putting the offending baby outside, to hose down, after you have aired out the house. It is OK to think this: talk about shitty first drafts! You'll learn to take poop in stride without ever understanding how a 10-pound being can produce such filth. In the same way, you will one day, God willing, find yourself reading a finished first draft of the book you hope to write, and you will be filled with such shame and horror that you'll want to take the book outside and hose it off. Do not leave the book or the baby outside: Clean them up, and then go sit outside and hold them. Pay attention to the beauty surrounding you. Rest. Start again.
Dr. Spock is very good on the subject of baby poop. You can look it up in the index of his book, where there are lists of colors and consistencies, and you will mostly be reassured that whatever your baby is pooping, you shouldn't be too concerned. Also, you can skip ahead to the section on raising 2-year-olds, and therein find the secret to dealing with any difficult person, of any age -- child, parent, colleague or yourself -- be firm, but friendly.
There is one area that is definitely specific to raising babies and not writing, and that has to do with gender.
If you have a girl baby, you must begin to teach her about feminism and liberation as early as possible, since these ideas seem to have somehow fallen by the wayside. It is my observation that young women in their 20s are frequently in deep despair, because they experience much the same discrimination and objectification and obsession that women have always endured, but they don't have the path and thrill of the women's movement; the sanctuary, and oxygenation of sisterhood. On a cautionary note, however, the more committed you are to feminism, the more you can rest assured that your daughter will want to dress like Mariah Carey. (On the other hand, if you are a girly-girl yourself, your child will want to dress like Mickey Rourke.)
If you have a boy baby, you are going to have the weenie to contend with. Having a weenie automatically bestows great advantage and power to the child, economically, physically, psychologically, over most women, and over all of Nature. I call it the Situation. You only have to deal with it one day at a time, though, with one tiny male baby, not with all the men throughout history who have ordered Inquisitions or bombings or been unfaithful to you and given you herpes or tiny trust issues.
You do, however, have to decide rather early on whether you are going to circumcise your boychik. This is an extremely dicey, charged decision, which you and your partner alone can decide: As in all of life, you really have to trust your heart and instincts -- to quote the great Mel Brooks, "Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it." Rather than risk getting a batch of letters comparing me to a hunter, let me just ask you whether you see yourself raising a boy who will make time every day to pull back his foreskin to give the Situation a good thorough cleansing. Perhaps you do. If not, you might consider circumcision. Your call.
One quick closing thought, though: Jews know things.
All right then: onward and upward. There are great books on raising babies, full of stunning insight and advice. It's paradoxical, like most truth, that some of us have most frequently seen the light on the flat, opaque page. But even the best books will fail you: Your experiences will be yours alone. But truth and best friendship will rarely if ever disappoint you. You get to tell people the truth about this tiny person, how much you adore him, and how insane you feel, how in love and how depressed, and how much he scares you, how everything scares you now. Nothing heals us like letting people know our scariest parts: When people listen to you cry and lament, and look at you with love, it's like they are holding the baby of you. You will not want to tell most people how wasted and crazy you feel sometimes, because you do not want them to think that you are a broken cuckoo clock of a parent. But you probably are. We all are; mad as fucking hatters, to use the psychological term. And raising a child is like pouring Miracle Grow on all your fears and character defects, so you have to talk about what's real, with safe people. Otherwise you are going to feel so isolated and deficient that it will damage your spirit. I wrote about some of this stuff in Salon many years ago:
"No one tells you that your life is effectively over when you have a child: that you're never going to draw another complacent breath again ... or that whatever level of hypochondria and rage you'd learned to repress and live with is going to seem like the good old days ... There are also good things they don't tell you, too, like how vibrational new babies are, how healing they are when they sleep on your chest, how you let out your breath and rest down into them and are set free of everything bad for just a moment ... But then again, no one tells you that sometimes you won't even like your child. Or that you are going to discover streaks of self-obsession and neuroses that make your crabby Aunt Nancy look like Meher Baba.
Things I know now that I didn't know when I wrote that:
The Pit Crew
The nurses in the delivery and recovery rooms will have all the answers to all the questions that will come up in the first few days, like, "Oh, God: now what?" They will help you learn to comfort, nurse, diaper, clean and, most important, swaddle the baby, which means to wrap it up in a soft little baby straitjacket decorated with bunnies and alphabet blocks. They will not let you leave the hospital until they believe you can keep the baby alive. They know that babies are both tough little buggers, and deliciously vulnerable, like you are. They will be the first people in your pit crew, but they are not able to come home with you to help. Discovering this is the single most upsetting part of having a child.
It takes a pit crew to raise a baby. Mine was made up of a couple of friends, my brother, other mothers, advice nurses, and the La Leche League. (The latter are experts on nursing, and they are free, and they'll help you learn how to get your milk to let down, and how to decrease the pain of having 20-pound breasts, and 4-inch nipples.) Pediatric advice nurses know that babies have fevers of 104 and that this does not mean you need to medevac the baby to the nearest neonatal intensive care unit in a helicopter. You probably just need a calm voice to remind you to give the baby Tylenol and a lukewarm bath. The nurses know that you were not issued an owner's manual when your baby arrived, and they know that the baby is not wrecked just because it already has a fever and acne and hair loss. They will help you any hour of the day or night, every step of the way. They will get seats in heaven near the still-warm chocolate chip cookies.
Rita, You're Wrong
A friend of mine, Rita, was in early sobriety, and posted a sign on her bathroom mirror that said, "Rita, you're wrong," because almost everything she thought about everything was wrong -- that she wasn't a real alcoholic, that her husband, parents, life, job and body were the problem, that every headache was a tumor, and tiredness meant leukemia. So she pasted a note to her mirror that said, "Rita, you're wrong," and then tried to remember that she was simply not going to drink for that day.
So try to remember: You are the parent of a new baby. Most of your worries will be unfounded, and most of your expectations will be thwarted. When you think dramatic, thinky thoughts about the baby's health or moral character, pat yourself gently on the shoulder, and say, "Uh-huh." You have to grind down the panic by pushing back your sleeves. The baby has it so much easier than you do: He or she is not going to try to figure things out. The baby calls you; you answer. So call the smartest, dearest friend you have. But don't call Rita; because she's almost always wrong.
Tea's Off, Ducks
There's an old Monty Python sketch where John Cleese goes into a tearoom, and asks the waitress (another Python, in drag) for something on the menu. "Oh, we're out of that," she says, with Python cheer. So he orders something else, and she says jauntily, "Sorry, none of that left either." So he tries more and more modest choices from the menu, each time discovering that the teahouse is out of that item too. Finally, he gives up. "All right, I'll just have tea," he says, and she says brightly, "Tea's off, Ducks."
There are going to be many, many days when you will not be able to do one single thing on your list of what needs to be done. The baby's needs are going to claim every living second of your time. You may be sick, and on top of that, the cat will get a foxtail up its nose. The baby will be inconsolable, and you will chip a tooth. You will realize you do not like babies, that you have a horrible one, and that she is going to grow up to be Ann Coulter. You will think, "God! If I could only take a three-minute shower, I could cope," but there will be no chance for a three-minute shower. Fluids are pouring out of the baby from every opening, all at once, onto you, and the furniture, like a water balloon from hell, and guess what? Tea's off, Ducks. Maybe late tonight you will finally get to take your shower, and even brush your teeth. It is going to have to do, and the funny thing is, it will.
If you had come of age in the '60s and '70s, you would have seen the poem, always printed on ersatz parchment, called the Desiderata, that began, "Go placidly among the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence." Now, that is all very nice, and we thank that very nice calm person for sharing, but I found greater help when I was a young mother in the National Lampoon's version, the Deteriorata:
"Gracefully surrender the things of youth:
The birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan,
And let not the sands of time
Get in your lunch ...
You are a fluke
Of the universe.
You have no right to be here.
And whether you can hear it or not
The universe is laughing behind your back.
Therefore, make peace with your god
Whatever you conceive him to be --
Hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin.
Surrender; give up, breathe, eat. Put your own oxygen mask on first. Pray, even if you think you are an atheist: You cannot know if you really are, until you've had a sick or colicky baby. There is not much fixing, or controlling, or saving people on this earth. There is only listening, seeking wise counsel, trying to help, and rest. There's only now. There's only the exact shape we're in right here. But babies help us access something better inside us, like writing does, a power every so often that brings us out of our armadillo shells of self-absorption and misery and control, and instead helps us bravely step out into life. Babies are great: They are ancient and new and full of potential we haven't ruined yet. They have terrible homesickness, like we do. They left the ultimate belonging on this earth, the ultimate clubhouse, the womb, to come alone into this noisy, upsetting world. As someone once said, or should have, you give them roots, you give them wings, and you pass it all on. Write it down, one sentence a day if that is all you can do. You'll be an old hand at raising infants at about the time it no longer serves you. Then reach behind you and take the hand of a person with a newborn, and help him or her, as you find that someone with a toddler is reaching for you, who is holding the hand of a kindergartener's father, or mother. Amen.